We were all singing—sort of—some kind of goodbye back then.
That lying bastard Nixon was on the way out; the Vietnam War was teetering—no, marching along—the dull edge of America’s recently broken sword, its crippled conscience; and Buddy Holly was a fond memory of clichés that no longer held currency for post-baby-boomers born to the Brady Bunch and a hemorrhaging, less than blasé–faire, OPEC-induced, capitalist economy in crisis. So Don McLean’s slightly quivering troubadour voice was like the faint sound of a skeptic generation birthed under fire as he wavered out “Bye Bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry….”
Dry, like gin, which was both a card game and something the big people drank when they played it, and good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, because quite awhile ago, rock-a-billy Buddy Holly bit it in an airplane crash, or maybe it was the few other things that had come up since that made folks want to drown in a stupor of melancholic nostalgia: houses with many stars in the windows, ex-soldiers robbing liquor stores during bouts of PTSD, or those burned out projects in South Chicago where the poor people lived.
I didn’t comprehend the Buddy angle from the song then because I was only six or seven years old and seatbeltless in the front seat of a Plymouth Ambassador station wagon, bound for the old-fashioned soda and ice cream shop in Hebron, Illinois, just north of Chicago. I had no sense of old history like that, and ”the big hill” occupied my thoughts then, as my father had made a big point of emphasizing how big I had gotten, now that I could climb the big hill. The world was big; I was getting bigger, too. I knew that much.
The big hill and ice cream were synonymous for time spent with my dad. My garbage-hauling, mostly-clean-clothes-on-the-weekends dad, my soul-music-loving, Otis Redding-singing dad had turned up the radio to a type of music I had never heard him play before: American pop. At least I thought I had never heard him play it, because at that age, memories of sitting in a black-people soul-music bar and watching Dad dance with women who weren’t Mom made the impression that music was all about “grooves,” slides and “ass shaking,” not this new sound of seventies rock.
As McLean was singing from the chrome-lined dash, I realized that I had heard that song once before, on a radio that Dad had pulled out of the garbage on one of his routes. The radio, maybe a Delco or an RCA, had been painted red, white and blue after the fashion of the war-protesting hippies. When my dad picked it out of the trash and asked if I wanted it, it could have been a pony or a brand new Red Rider BB gun, but it wouldn’t have had the same pull on me as it did as a radio, because having a radio of my own was like owning the news and the songs and the words of the world, all in one box, just plug it in. Mostly, it was given to me by my dad who I seldom saw in the daytime, what with him being a late-night hard-drinking bar-brawling gangster and all.
I remembered hearing that song, all by myself in my bedroom just the day before. From birth to six years old, the only sounds I heard during my afternoon naps, or my playtime in my room, was the faint sound of airplanes droning off into infinity, the neighbor kids playing outside, or a sibling coming and going to school, and Mom, banging pots in the kitchen. But the day I got that radio was the day I heard what became my first favorite song, and the world made sense to me somehow, because I had a red, white and blue radio, and a song coming out of it that echoed an American national identity. My dad gave that to me.
My formative years were sprinkled with the assassinations of every leader that my Irish father held up as examples of “good men who believe in something and will fight for it.” John, Bobby, Martin—all of them were my nascent heroes, and I had watched them die on TV like everyone else did, but it was Don McLean on that radio that brought it home to me—I was an American, and we were all grieving for something.
I was thankful because I was with my dad, and we were driving, and I wasn’t at all afraid of the Holy Ghost when I was with him, and I felt like a grownup when I realized we liked the same song. I thought “this must be man stuff,” and I was a little man, getting bigger like my Dad John, or the President John, Bobby, Martin, or Buddy. And that line, “the father, the son, and the holy ghost caught the last train for the coast,” reminded me that the church, or all the kings and all the horses and all the men, couldn’t put them back together again, “the day, the music died” or thereafter.
The Real CMF is best known, at least under that name, as an internet gadfly. When Quiche Moraine asked him to make sure he could comment pseudonymously in comfort, we didn’t expect anything like this. We’re honored to have received it, though.
This entry was posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 6:17 am and is filed under Features, Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.